Alfalfa growers don't make hay while the sun shines in California, which is why Bob Piester ended up in court.

Piester bales hay for himself and others around Riverside County, usually at night, when dew provides the right moisture content. He was quite surprised when a deputy sheriff arrested him in the middle of the night last June 8, just after he had finished a field near Sun City.

Apparently, a woman living in a travel trailer on adjacent land had complained that the noise kept her awake. Piester, held in jail for 49 minutes, was warned about further "noise-making."

On June 21, Piester was in an adjacent field. The same deputy arrived at 11:45 p.m., wanting to know why he was "cutting the grass" in the middle of the night, Piester says. The woman had complained again.

After issuing a citation, the deputy asked Piester what he was going to do. His reply:

"Either you handcuff me, shoot me or take me to the detention center. If you don't do any of those things I'm finishing the field." He kept baling.

Two days later, the Riverside County Farm Bureau's executive manager, Robert Eli Perkins, called the sheriff's department's attention to a county ordina nce and a state civil code.

"The specific point of these two laws is that no customary agricultural activity can become a nuisance after it has been operating for three years due to any changed conditions about the locality," the letter stated. "The laws ... protect farmers from interruption."

But Piester did have to appear in court in July to hear that the charges were being dropped.

"I went to court with mixed feelings," he says. "I was glad it was over, but had wanted a jury trial because I knew I could beat it. I have lived here 27 years and baled hay for 25. I have only had three people complain."

When the beleaguered farmer returned home from court that day, he found a letter from a Riverside County deputy district attorney in his mailbox.

It stated: "On June 21, 1999, you were cited for ... disturbing the peace. Although we are choosing at this time not to file criminal charges, we take these violations seriously. If you are cited for disturbing the peace again under the same circumstances ... we will file charges and proceed accordingly."

That was when Don Bean, a hay grower, Farm Bureau director and Piester's neighbor, informed some hay industry contacts about the situation.

The result: widespread support for Piester from the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association, the California Alfalfa Forage Association and the National Hay Association.

In early August, Farm Bureau invited District Attorney Grover Trask to tell farmers how the misunderstanding happened. He said his staff would be informed of the right-to-farm laws, and that other law enforcement agencies needed to check the laws.

Trask also wrote to Piester, apologizing for the incidents.